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When Is It Safe for Schools to Open? Many States Haven’t Given Clear Answers

By Evie Blad — September 14, 2020 3 min read
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As school administrators wrestle with when and how to reopen their buildings during the coronavirus pandemic, many states have provided them little guidance about when its safe to do so.

They’ve left the decision up to local officials and, in some cases, pushed for buildings to open without providing public health rationale, a new analysis finds.

“It may be that districts are, in that vacuum, turning to local health officials,” says the analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center at the University of Washington, Bothell. “But silence from states jeopardizes the safe and timely reopening of public schools and opens the door to local decisions shaped by politics, not public health.”

After reviewing state reopening plans and directives, the organization found that 23 states plus the District of Columbia “provide no clear public health criteria to guide reopening decisions.” And the states that do provide guidance on health use widely varying criteria to deem when its safe to provide in-person instruction, the report’s authors found.

The findings come after superintendents groups have pushed for months for clearer federal guidance on when and how to open schools following mass closures in the spring. They’ve complained about seemingly conflicting and unclear recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, while less-prescriptive state guidance can allow for more local freedom, it can also leave school leaders struggling to interpret and navigate public health information, politics, and conflicting pressures from within their communities.

Health Criteria for Reopening Schools

This map, created by CRPE researchers, shows which states provide “specific indicators or transparent benchmarks” for when it’s safe to reopen schools.

What factors should schools weigh when considering whether it’s safe to teach in-person?

CDC Director Robert Redfield said schools in “hot spots” may have to modify reopening plans. And President Donald Trump has conceded that schools in “hot spots” may have delay reopening for “a few weeks.” Redfield has defined a hot spot as an area where at least 5 percent of COVID-19 tests come back positive, and he’s emphasized focusing on local areas, not statewide totals.

CRPE found states are considering varying criteria in their school guidance. And even some states using the same criteria, such as cases per capita, set different thresholds about what is considered safe.

The report cites a recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute that say schools can return to fully in-person instruction when daily cases fall under 10 per 100,000 people. While Washington state sets a standard twice as stringent as Harvard’s, at 5 per 100,000 people in a county, Connecticut sets the bar lower, at 25 cases per 100,000 people in a county.

“Comparing apples to apples, it’s easy to question why state guidance should vary so dramatically and hard not to wonder what political forces are coming into play to influence those thresholds,” the report says. “Vague and varying guidelines leave reopening vulnerable to shifting politics and may contribute to a crisis of confidence among teachers and parents about going back to school.”

In some states, districts and educators have sued over their state’s reopening directives. In Iowa, Des Moines schools remain closed even after a judge rejected a request for an injunction against the state’s rule, which requires in-person instruction unless a county’s test positivity rate exceeds 15 percent.

Inconsistent messaging and a lack of public trust in the criteria set for reopening decisions can lead to resistance to reopening when it may be more safe to do so, or to keeping schools closed when it may not be. That is one of the factors that have turned some parents into ad hoc activists, as we reported this summer.

And it can also be difficult for schools to track cases of COVID-19, Education Week reported last week. There is no official federal data source about school-related cases.

How are states handling school reopenings? View our interactive map.

Photo: Fourth grade teacher Nicole Petrich teaches her students in the classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School Sept. 3. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)


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